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Unpopular Opinion: Airlines Should Get Rid of the Recline Button on Airplane Seats

Airports + Flying
by Eben Diskin Apr 7, 2022

This is the Travel Take, where Matador’s writers and editors make the case for their favorite travel hacks, tips, and personal tics.

There are debates that will never cease raging: “Is a hot dog a sandwich?”, “Is deep dish actually pizza?”, “Backstreet Boys or NSYNC?” Only a few of them, however, have spawned as many fights (both verbal and physical) as the controversy over whether or not you should recline your airplane seats.

“To recline or not to recline?” That is the question. If it smacks of a Shakespearean tragedy, that’s because it’s often the source of drama in flight. We all know how it starts. A passenger reclines their seat — either to get some shut-eye or just some extra space — and the person behind them, feeling encroached upon, reacts poorly. Justifiably so. Does the fault lie with the recliner or with the hapless seat neighbor? In reality, it lies with the airline that installed the button allowing you to recline your airplane seat.

The headache caused by passengers reclining their seats has even been confirmed by research. One traveler survey conducted by travel blog Only Wanderlust has found seat reclining to be among the top 10 most annoying passenger behaviors. Another survey of air passengers by FiveThirtyEight came to a similar conclusion: 41 percent of fliers consider seat reclining to be rude. These findings are backed up by some flight attendants, who admit that the practice can lead to thorny situations.

If passengers could simply come to a collective consensus about seat reclining — either total acceptance of the practice, or complete rejection — that would solve the problem. After years of fiery debate, however, that’s clearly not happening anytime soon. This is why, for the sake of collective passenger sanity and harmony, that button should be removed altogether.

Reclining your airplane seat creates a domino effect of discomfort

Many of our nation’s social and political disagreements are rooted in the philosophical battle between community and self-interest. Do we put ourselves first, or our neighbors? Should we only care about what happens within our borders, or involve ourselves in international affairs? The same is true of seat reclining. The community-minded approach would be to refrain from reclining, knowing that it inconveniences the person behind you, and will likely create a domino effect of claustrophobia. The selfish approach is, of course, to say “screw everyone else, that 105 degree angle will make all the difference!”

You can’t blame people for frequently choosing the selfish approach. The easiest option is usually the option most-taken, after all, and that little button is tantalizingly easy to push. Like the Ring of Power in The Lord of the Rings, it weighs on our minds, appealing to our worst impulses, whispering dark temptations in our ear. Also like the Ring, the solution here isn’t to use it (for it can only be used for evil) but to destroy it — to cast it back into the fiery, industrial chasm from whence it came.

Planes aren’t supposed to be comfortable

The motivating ideology behind reclining seats is to make your flight experience more comfortable. It sounds reasonable. You can’t exactly blame people for trying to make a tight squeeze feel less cramped, or a guaranteed-to-be-terrible night’s sleep slightly less awful. But the airline can install all the buttons they want, dole out pillows, sleep masks, earplugs, and tuck you in at night — you’ll still be uncomfortable, and that’s totally okay.

Planes have one job, and that’s getting you to your destination in one piece. It’s not to entertain you, or provide you with a top-notch hospitality experience. The advent of inflight entertainment certainly makes flying more palatable, and amenities like pillows and blankets can’t hurt — but these things, unlike reclining seats, can be enjoyed without inconveniencing others. Flying on an airplane isn’t like staying at a hotel. You’re not supposed to be comfortable. The point of flying is to get from point A to B as expeditiously as possible, and if you happen to catch some Zs, count yourself lucky.

An entire industry is devoted to preventing you from reclining your seat

An entire independent industry has formed around seat reclining.

The most prominent example is probably the Knee Defender, a device you can place on the bottom of the seatback in front of you, which prevents the seat from reclining. If you’re thinking that using a special invention to forcibly prevent your neighbor from reclining their seat might lead to an incendiary situation, you’d be right. In 2014, James Beach was asked to remove his Knee Defender, and immediately upon doing so, the passenger in front of him reclined their seat.

Beach reportedly complained, saying he wasn’t able to work on his laptop with the seat so far back, but the flight attendant insisted that the passenger had a right to recline. Beach responded by pushing the seat forward, which caused the passenger to stand up and throw a cup of soda on his laptop.

“I said a lot of things I shouldn’t have said to the flight attendant,” Beach told CBC News, “some bad words…the plane was dead quiet for the rest of that flight.”

Forget the fact that a new product was invented, and gained widespread popularity, solely because of how much people hate reclining seats. Forget that reclining seats led one adult to use a piece of plastic to sabotage another adult, and that adult #2 ended up throwing soda on adult #1. Instead of assigning blame to a victim or aggressor, remember the true culprit of this story: the seat recline button itself.

We need to realize that the discord that arises from these incidents isn’t the fault of the recliner or the reclinee, but the airline that enables us, making the mischief irresistible.

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